With a mix of floral wallpaper and deep teal paint, Understory’s interior decor summons up a tropical vibe. Florencio Esquivel, one of the restaurant’s cooks, says that the food doesn’t actually reflect that kind of cuisine. Originally planned as a Southeast Asian restaurant, the space came to Esquivel and their partners almost fully constructed. “If we had decorated the space,” they say, “it would probably look something like this, so it’s just a happy accident.”
Understory serves food created by its four self-titled “worker leaders.” The rotating menu includes Esquivel’s vegan Mexican recipes, Jenabi Pareja and Nino Serrano’s Filipino dishes, and Moroccan cooking from Lily Fahsi-Haskell. Esquivel used to run the Hella Vegan Eats food truck and pop-up. At the start of the pandemic, they worked in Oakland at the Planted Table. Like many others in the restaurant industry last year, Esquivel and their coworkers were laid off. “We were trying to organize to secure hazard pay and a commitment, on their end, to our safety when they asked us to come back,” Esquivel says. “What we got in response to that was everyone just being permanently let go.”
The Understory worker leaders joined forces after enduring similar experiences during the pandemic. “What unites us is definitely the backgrounds that we come from—being poor and working-class,” Esquivel says.
Pareja says that each worker leader has a background as a community organizer in addition to their culinary experience. “We showcase dishes in terms of our own backgrounds, but our work as organizers informs our collective approach,” he says.
Eventually, Pareja adds, Understory might work toward a unified, holistic menu, but each rotation does incorporate some aspect of the other cuisines. Toasts and sliders are often executed collaboratively. And on Pareja and Serrano’s current Filipino menu, they’ve included a beet summer salad with Moroccan ingredients such as chickpeas and feta cheese. The salad is a preview for what’s up next in terms of Fahsi-Haskell’s flavor profiles.
When Pareja’s chef rotation ends, he, like the other chefs, works at Understory in many different capacities. He bartends, or attends to the front of the house. “When people are more concerned with appetizers and entrees, I like to dabble with dessert options for folks,” he says. Whatever strength or weakness someone has, the team finds a way to fit them into a variety of roles. No one’s stuck in the role of a subservient sous chef. Esquivel might curate the menu one week, but Pareja is free to weigh in on a dish in a supportive way. Egos are set aside so that everyone works collectively together.
Pareja has experience working in a more elitist kitchen run by a single executive chef who made all the decisions. Within the more egalitarian framework of Understory, Pareja says the worker leaders wanted to ask, “How do you approach a model that actually takes care of its workers, that fosters leadership and creates dignity in the workplace?”
“I don’t think any of us thought that Understory would actually come to fruition, because of the pandemic,” Esquivel says. Established restaurants were shutting down. “The original owners [who had planned the Southeast Asian restaurant] couldn’t continue. We had the opportunity, as people who were laid off from work, but it was very unclear what was going to happen with the economy.” Esquivel adds that with their complementary work histories, “the four of us created this solid model of just being able to move things forward.”
“We’re all people of color,” Esquivel says. “We all come from a background of experiencing and surviving migration.” Unlike many chef-driven kitchens, there isn’t a hierarchy at Understory. “We have great rapport with one another and a lot of personal experience in the food industry,” they say. “We want to have visibility in the food world. That’s reflected in how we’ve been able to move forward, to form something that feels sustainable just by making sure that all of our voices count.”
Understory also provides pop-up opportunities for local chefs through their partner organization Oakland Bloom. Oakland Bloom’s mission reads, “building opportunity and ownership with migrant chefs and chefs of color.” Three Sundays a month, the restaurant features their Open Test Kitchen incubation program. In May, Chef Pa Wah made three traditional Karen Burmese dishes, including chin ban chan, chicken curry and khao swe hin yih.
When I tried a menu at Understory, it was under Esquivel’s rotation. They weren’t set up for indoor dining, but there is a parklet out front. Esquivel’s three sisters dish is a rich stew composed of corn, squash and beans. They simmer the sisters in a garlic-tomato sauce with pasilla chiles and kale. The cooling jackfruit slaw complements the three sisters’ heat. Along with marinated jackfruit, the chef chops up cabbage, jicama, apple, mint, cilantro and radish before mixing in a chile de árbol peanut vinaigrette.
“I’ve been vegan for a really long time, something like 17 years,” Esquivel says. That’s the entire time they’ve cooked professionally. In the past year, they say, “I have found my own personal voice in cooking that’s really rooted in ancestral ingredients.” For Esquivel, it’s an honor to not only fight cultural erasure, but to also participate in “healing the generational trauma of forced migration.”
Esquivel’s cuisine is also influenced by what’s on display at local farmers’ markets. Understory is only a couple of blocks away from Chinatown and the Old Oakland Farmers’ Market. “There’s such a variety of different kinds of foods in Oakland,” they say. That’s where their idea for a turnip cake came from. “It’s a take on a vegan scallop. The dish has corn and coconut milk.” As a vegan cook, Esquivel doesn’t use fake meats. For the most part, their substitutes are vegetables and grains.
Esquivel’s family is from Mexico, but they grew up not having a connection to that culture or being part of a community. “When I moved to Oakland, I did start building a queer community,” Esquivel says. But it wasn’t tied to Mexican culture. This absence reignited “a desire to reconnect on my family’s behalf.” Esquivel explains they grew up with a poor self-image that was directly tied to racism. “I’m really just trying to reclaim my identity and to have pride. I feel like I’m coming home and healing when I’m cooking and sharing these beautiful recipes.”
Pareja describes Fahsi-Haskell’s approach not as fusion, but as Moroccan with a Californian twist. He and Serrano’s point of departure for their menu is pulutan, “snacks or Filipino street food.” When we spoke on the phone, Pareja had a pot of sisig on the stove, made with minced pork, citrus, onions and peppers. The other small plates in this rotation are grilled jalapeño tacos with pickled cauliflower and skewers served with housemade atchara—pickles—and spiced vinegar.
Each one of the menus also includes a soup or stew that is offered on a sliding scale with a suggested price of $8. But the menu reads, “No one will be turned away for a lack of funds! If you would like to pay less than $8, simply ask us for a bowl and we’ll be happy to feed you.”
Understory, 528 8th St., Oakland, Occupied Ohlone Territory. Open Thursday, 4–8pm; Friday, noon to 2pm and 4–8pm; Saturday, noon to 4pm; Sunday, rotating chef pop-ups. 510.817.4356. understoryoakland.com